Martin Pollock, a 32-year-old British Army veteran, lost three limbs six years ago to an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) while fighting in Afghanistan. After spending years of rehabilitation aimed to increase his mobility and adapt to his new limits, frustration and despair started to creep in.
"At that point, I was just about ready to quit with the walking, and stick with the wheelchair," admits Pollock. "Things weren't very positive and I was getting down. But since I learned to surf, I've slowly turned my life back around.”
Pollock was introduced to surfing by lucky chance. At DMRC Headley Court, the British hospital where he underwent rehab, one of the instructors mentioned a program called Operation Surf. Already in place back in the United States, the program takes wounded active duty and veteran soldiers to the beach and into the water, exposing them to the healing nature of the ocean and to a new bond with their fellow soldiers. Pollack signed up and took that fateful first visit across the pond to give surfing a shot.
Just over the past decade, tens of thousands of U.S. troops have left the field of war due to injuries sustained on the battlefield. Some return missing limbs. Almost all bring home traumatic memories.
California Central Coast native Van Curaza is on a mission to serve these unsung heroes, by teaching them how to surf with one-on-one instruction by the best in the region. Curaza owns Van Curaza Surf School in Avila Beach, but was first exposed to adaptive surf lessons for wounded active duty soldiers and veterans through his participation with Operation Comfort and the Brooke Army Medical Center/ Center For The Intrepid in 2007, two other organizations that aim to aid physically and psychologically wounded veterans.
"What I realized was that surfing and the ocean were both key components in my happiness," Curaza says. "Surfing was my life — my identity, my self-worth, and my self-esteem. I found the same to be true for these soldiers.”
Curaza quickly realized that he could help others by introducing them to his own passion. This paradigm shift is what led him to start his nonprofit, Amazing Surf Adventures, which originated as a community outreach program for at-risk and underserved youth, and later came to include Operation Surf.
After instructing wounded vets through adaptive surfing, Curaza was touched by their personal stories from the battlefield and their courage in the water, inspiring him to found Operation Surf. After years of development, Operation Surf became what it is today — a week-long, curriculum-based program that brings wounded active duty and veteran soldiers together for a week of surfing and healing.
So far, Curaza has held the program off the central coast of San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, as well as in Cocoa Beach, Florida. The program has been so successful for wounded veterans like Pollack, that later this year, Curaza’s staff will head to the U.K. to train personnel on how to create their own Operation Surf program, which has become globally recognized and is renowned for its ability to change lives. The unique curriculum combines the restoration of the ocean and the compassionate mentorship needed to help participants overcome their perceived challenges and bolster their confidence.
"The whole process of setting goals at the beginning of our week together is this: When you give support and the means to accomplish something amazing like going surfing to someone who has significant mental or physical doubt, you instill hope," explains Curaza.
Just like the military, there is a deep sense of camaraderie throughout the program, something that former pro surfer and Operation Surf instructor Darryl "Flea" Virostko could feel in the air during the last event in Santa Cruz in April.
"The camaraderie and fellowship in surfing is similar to that in the armed forces. It's something that really resonates with these men and women when they come to the event. Their never-give-up attitude, you could really see it. Every time I do this, I see how tenacious, committed, and gung-ho they are."
"The whole week was a big time-group effort, from the volunteers bringing food, to the instructors, to the participants themselves. I love how we got to spend the whole week with them, going to dinner every night, and getting to know their stories."
Another big-wave legend out of Santa Cruz, Richard Schmidt, has taught others how to surf for decades. As one of Curaza's longtime mentors, Schmidt was one of the first he called to get on board with Operation Surf, which led to its founding in Santa Cruz in 2011. Schmidt is always impressed with the participants' attitude and drive.
"The camaraderie and fellowship in surfing is similar to that in the armed forces. It's something that really resonates with these men and women when they come to the event,” he says. “Their never-give-up attitude, you can really see it. Every time I do this, I see how tenacious, committed, and gung-ho they are."
For Pollack, surfing has reinvigorated a life that, at one point, he saw as wasted. By lucky chance, he was given his opportunity with Operation Surf. He'll never be the same, he says. Everything about the surfing lifestyle — the feeling of weightlessness, the spiritual well-being, the sense of brotherhood — is priceless to him. It also has forever changed the way he views himself.
"I don't think of myself as disabled any more. I like to think I'm 'differently-abled.'"
For information about Operation Surf, visit amazingsurfadventures.org.